- An Author Pleads For Her CharactersVol. 3, No. 4, April 1941
I have taught literature myself and know something of the difficulties from the point of view of the teacher. At the same time I remember how sterile my classes in literature were for me as a student. There never was a hungrier student mind than mine and literature was my meat. Yet never in any literature class did I find that which could feed me. I fed myself out of hours, devouring books of my own choice.
I don't believe students are ever going to enjoy literature or understand what it is about until they are led straight to the material of literature, namely, the human beings in books. It is not the authors who are interesting—or ought not to be. I am dismayed at the number of letters I get these days from students, all beginning in much the same words. "I have an assignment in English about you." My blood freezes—have I in my turn become an assignment in English? Oh, poor children! Why should they have to inquire into the details of my life and learn the facts of my personal history and how I happened to write my books? This has nothing to do with literature or with them. It shows, it seems to me, a completely wrong approach to the study of literature.
What I should like is not to be "assigned" at all, nor taught at all in English classes. I'd much rather have my books read for other reasons. But if any is taught, I should like to have the teacher introduce it not as literature—doubtful, anyway—nor even as a book, but primarily as a group of people. Let him say, when he approaches a book, here is a handful of individuals, strangers and that they happen to be between the covers of a book is nothing. They might be in a room, or on a street, or in a town. Who are they, and what are they, and why do they behave as they do? Let us find out all about them.
In other words, I wish that students could approach novels only through the people in them. That is what a novel is, people and their relation to each other. When the student realizes this, the people come alive for him and he studies them—that is, he comes to know them, not the author or his tricks of style and form. You will ask are they not to study style and form? Only through the people, I think. The students may discover the style and see if it clarifies or clouds the personalities of the people, and whether the scheme of the novel is suitable to the full revelation of the people and what they do. But I am sure that unless and until teachers and [End Page 134] students will take literature as primarily a picture of life itself, portrayed through persons, the study of literature will remain what it is, a formal, cold "assignment."
I feel strongly in this, for I have never been able to regain my own love of Shakespeare, lost through the drilling of an English master who made me thoroughly familiar with the technique and words of Shakespeare's plays and killed Shakespeare's people for me. Life is the essential to be pursued in literature. If literature is not taught as life it is useless to the student and literature itself is killed by so much. For I need not point out how important it is to the writer that his work be appreciated for itself. Not to have understanding and appreciation of his work is to him what a singer would feel if he were singing to an audience of the deaf. It is the song that matters to the singer, not himself. When ears are deaf why should he sing to them? [End Page 135]